Tuesday 31 August 2010

Mrs Miniver

Her normal life pleased her so well that she was half afraid to step out of its frame in case one day she should find herself unable to get back.
Mrs Miniver began as an occasional series of articles to The Times by Jan Struther. Observations about family life, day-to-day events, thoughts and reflections are collected under enticing headings such as The Last Day of the Holidays, Christmas Shopping and Choosing a Doll and were published as a book in 1939.

The opening is delightful. Mrs Miniver is returning to her London home carrying a big bunch of chrysanthemums. She rejoices in the early autumn sunshine, the astringent scent of the flowers, the bright fire in her drawing room and the unsullied new library books laying on the stool.

There are similarities in the style and form between Mrs Miniver and The Diary of a Provincial Lady, but I have to say that at times I found Mrs Miniver a little too smug which I never found with the PL. However, the excellent introduction by Valerie Groves informs us that Jan Struther had a very privileged life and reminds us to keep a sense of time and place. The book takes on a more sombre tone after the outbreak of war.

I suspect Mrs Miniver works best as a series of articles rather than a novel, nevertheless this is an enjoyable read by an intelligent and vivacious woman.

Monday 23 August 2010

Elegy to Africa

I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills.
In the 1920's Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen) ran a coffee plantation at the foot of the Ngong Hills in Kenya. Published in 1937, Out of Africa documents Blixen's love affair with the people and landscape of Africa. Poetic descriptions of the rain falling on the young coffee plants, the 'blue vigour' of the African sky, the zebra and foal at the waterhole and successfully getting an English white peony to bloom on the African soil combine with action and adventure. Blixen goes on safari, resolves tribal disputes and enjoys exhilarating flights with Denys Finch-Hatton in his biplane.

Blixon was very much aware that the Africa she knew and loved was changing. The days of the great white hunters like Berkely Cole were coming to an end and when the coffee plantation failed she returned to her native Denmark. At times her generalisations about 'the natives' seem patronising and she takes rather too much pleasure in shooting lions, but in her dealings with the Masai Mara and Kukuyu she is unfailingly generous and kind. Her writing is literary and beautiful.

Along with Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible, Out of Africa is one of my favourite books about the experiences of western women in Africa.

Monday 16 August 2010

Two good things on a Tuesday

A pristine Elizabeth Taylor right there on the library shelves without me having to order it.

A very pink potted African Daisy - think the proper name is gerbera but I prefer African Daisy.

Happy Tuesday everyone!

Thursday 12 August 2010

Terrible Jane

I couldn't get a clear picture of this book in Costa and spent a few minutes thinking that I really should get a decent camera instead of the cheap and cheerful one which I have used for a few years now. Then I had a reality check and remembered that this is a reading blog and not a lifestyle blog and it's easy when you're blogging to get carried away with the whole presentation thing, don't you think?

This collection of essays edited by Susannah Carson about the pleasures of reading Jane Austen has absorbed me all week. In her charming essay The Radiance of Jane Austen Eudora Welty describes Austen as being blessed with 'fairy gifts' namely a genius for comedy and originality. In the wickedly titled Terrible Jane Amy Bloom revels in Austen's satire and laments that in her time her work was appreciated for all the wrong reasons by writers who 'were not fit to clean her muddy boots' and that she was forced to 'take seriously' the literary efforts of her nephews and nieces attempting to emulate their Aunt Jane.

I particularly liked Susanna Clark's argument that Austen wasn't a 'visual writer'. The bonnets, dresses, ballrooms and carriages belong to the world of film and television. Austen herself barely described these things, being more interested in the psyche of the character.

Alain de Botton describes Austen's novels as 'books that speak to us of our own lives with a clarity we cannot match' and E M Forster brilliantly argues that though Austen invoked greatness in her novels 'she cannot retain it any more than we can.' After completing Pride and Prejudice Austen visits the portrait galleries in London and searches for a painting of Elizabeth.

'I dare say she will be in yellow, she writes to Cassandra. But not in that nor in any colour could she find her.'
I really must read Deirdre LeFaye's collection of Austen's letters which has been languishing unread on my book shelf for well over a year now.